I’ve been self-employed for a while now, which is a way of saying that I don’t have a job but I still scrape by and I hold out hope that one day my hobbies will make me money. It’s taken a lot of practice – not only practicing the skills and hobbies that will, as I mentioned, hopefully one day bear fruit of one sort or another, but also practicing the art of scheduling those skills and hobbies.
When I first tried to make it as an independent developer, I figured I would work 8 hours a day. That’s what you do for a job, right? I managed approximately one day on that schedule before I imploded, and got extremely depressed at my inability to manage the schedule I had created for myself. It was a bad scene, and for about a year I got basically nothing done. I knew that, at my best, 8 hours is nothing – and sure, that’s fine for one day, but two? Three? A week? A month? How many good days can I have in a row? What do I do when I have a bad one, and start falling behind where I want to be?
A key difference between self-employment and your average job is for a job you mostly just have to show up and do what’s expected of you. When you have your own goals, your own standards, there’s no end to what you can expect of yourself, and it becomes hard to tell what counts as work and what doesn’t. 8 hours at a desk doing a job isn’t the same thing as 8 hours of work: There’s a lot of job-time that isn’t exactly work, that’s time spent organizing the mind and figuring out what task to do next and, frankly, just fucking off, waiting for the moment where one feels up to the next task. Perhaps not everyone works that way, but I mostly did and in so doing had no problem keeping up with the tasks assigned to me or keeping pace with my peers, so I assume it’s basically the same for most people – or, at least, most people working on creative or technical tasks which require focus and concentration.
Trying to schedule this kind of work is kind of like panning for gold – you can control how much time you spend doing the job, but not how much of that effort generates results. Putting in more effort can have counterproductive effects, as your vision gets bleary and you start to miss things, or as you get frustrated with a run of bad luck and get impatient.
Most of all I’ve had to learn to take things slow and to be patient with myself. I’ve had to accept that most days I can only make an hour or two of real work, most days progress will be slow and painful, and that I have to accept that things will take a while. An hour or two a day is good, as long as it’s consistent, as long as it’s real work. However, I also need to leave that a bit open-ended, to enable myself to work more when I’m enthusiastic and able – or to forgive myself for working less, when I just can’t do it.
It’s difficult. It requires listening to yourself and being honest about what you can do and how much and when. It requires being willing to demand things of yourself and also being willing to forgive yourself when you fail to live up to those expectations.
At least, that’s the way I’ve learned to do it. I’m sure there are better ways, and I’m sure there are people who do it better. I constantly fear I’m not doing enough, I constantly worry I’m doing too much, I constantly feel I should be expanding my horizons, I constantly feel I’m spreading myself too thin. I don’t know a better way, though, not yet. Bit by bit, I explore the boundaries of what I’m capable of, and I try to push them out just a little more – and if, perhaps, my work won’t be done for another five years, ten years… then that’s upsetting, but far better than the alternative, just out of sight behind me, that my work might never be done at all.